Facebook Portal TV full review
Now available in the UK (and for a limited time at only £99 rather than £149), Facebook's Portal TV is in essence a webcam for your television, allowing you to make and receive video calls using the biggest screen in your house.
It's one of four Portal devices now available in the UK, with the others all tablet-like devices with various size screens. Only Portal Mini is cheaper with a retail price of £129; it has an 8in screen, a 10W speaker and a 13Mp camera, but we're really not sure why you wouldn't just buy a budget tablet that has additional functionality for the same money.
We originally wrote this review in November when Portal TV launched in the UK. Since then Facebook has made some game-changing tweaks to the software. For a start, the rather Spartan app store now additionally includes Amazon Prime Video, ramping up the content on offer via Facebook Watch and making it a much more useful device to plug into your TV. Even more appealing, though, is the ability to log into Portal via WhatsApp, with all users previously required to hold a Facebook account. (Read more about other new Portal TV features here.)
Portal TV: What it is, what it does
The Portal TV can make individual- or group video calls over Wi-Fi to your contacts on Facebook Messenger (up to seven users) and WhatsApp (up to three users), plus builds in Alexa voice control and a handful of apps for things like Facebook Watch, making it much easier to watch the social network's original content without casting from a mobile device.
Having previously enjoyed Limetown on our smartphone, the thought of watching the last few episodes on a larger screen is welcome. But Facebook's content platform is still rather limited, with few big-name shows drawing attention to it.
Other apps (of which there were previously only four but Amazon Prime Video has recently been added to the list) include Red Bull TV, Neverthink (a never-ending playlist of curated YouTube videos), Spotify (Premium account required) and Story Time. Arguably the only one worth a mention is Story Time, which uses augmented reality to overlay fun effects while you read your children a bedtime story, either in the room or over a video call. It's fun, but a bit gimmicky nonetheless. More apps are said to be coming soon.
Alexa integration is more useful, and makes this webcam smarter than most, effectively turning your TV screen into a giant Echo Show. You can command Alexa to show you the weather, play music from Amazon Prime (during which it displays the lyrics onscreen), and anything else for which you would ordinarily use a smart speaker. Google Assistant is not supported, but may be considered in future.
Portal TV: Performance
The camera has some cool functionality, panning and zooming to ensure everyone in the room is in view, and though you aren't able to see this without being on the other end of the call it uses Smart Camera and Smart Sound to zoom in on whoever is speaking at the time. There's noise cancellation, too, removing background noise for improved call quality.
Call quality in our tests was good, but the picture you see on the TV is dependent entirely on the camera quality of your recipient's phone, tablet or even Portal device - whatever they are using for the call. What looks good on a 6in screen isn't going to look as good scaled up on a 50in TV screen, but even faced with a not-so-sharp image we found Portal TV a fun and convenient way to video chat with life-size contacts.
At their end of the conversation the Portal TV should provide a clear image on smaller devices, thanks to its 720p camera, but should you be chatting with other Portal users over a bigger screen we would have preferred to see a full-HD camera. Of course, fewer pixels place less strain on your Wi-Fi, and given a strong connection we found smooth video with no drop-outs. That said, including ethernet as an option would have been welcome.
Although it works very well, we did find the device gets rather warm in use.
Portal TV: Setup and use
I purchased a Portal TV for my parents so that they could chat more easily to my brother who lives in Canada, and to avoid family get-togethers where we each pass around Dad's iPad to have the same conversation one by one over a video call. In theory it's ideal for their needs, but there is one catch that caught me out: upon launch you needed to have a Facebook account to set up Portal TV. Thankfully you can now also connect via WhatsApp, though this feature addition didn't come early enough to help me.
It is worth knowing, nevertheless, that it is possible to create a Facebook account and not use it for anything other than logging into Portal, and once it is set up in this way you can add your WhatsApp contacts via WhatsApp Web. You will need to be Facebook friends with anyone you wish to set up a Portal user account for, however, and up to four accounts can be set up on the device. Switching between them is simple - almost a little too simple.
We found the setup process took longer than we'd like - around 20 minutes - and most of this time is spent downloading and installing updates on the Portal TV and its companion remote, which is strange given that it is a brand-new device.
It will walk you through connecting to Wi-Fi, selecting a language (choose US English if you want to use "Hey Portal" voice commands, though it also supports UK English, French, Italian, German and Spanish), setting up a Portal account (frustratingly this must be achieved in a web browser on a separate mobile device since there is no browser on Portal TV) and selecting a few favourite contacts.
If you want anything else, such as adding WhatsApp and Alexa accounts, adding a screen lock, turning on a photo slideshow, increasing the font size or using high-contrast text, you can apply these changes in the Settings menu later.
Having set up our Portal TV using UK English we found the "Hey Portal" commands didn't work, and to bring up Alexa voice integration we needed to press the mic button on the remote and then say "Alexa", which seemed like an unnecessary extra step given that the eight mics on top of the device were already switched on and awaiting our commands.
Without the Portal voice assistant we relied on the remote control for navigation, and found this very simple to use. A pair of volume buttons on this remote control the main TV volume, but for everything else not-Portal-related you'll still need your standard TV remote.
Part of the setup procedure involves positioning the Portal TV on your television. We found it looked better sat below our TV (though you should avoid placing it too close to any speakers), but when we sat too close to the screen during a video call we appeared to be constantly looking up as we were watching our recipient onscreen rather than looking at the camera itself.
You can get around this by sitting a bit further away, or by mounting the Portal TV on the top of the television. It has two clips, front and back, that allow it to grip on to the TV frame. It seems reasonably sturdy, and is easily adjustable to fit any TV.
You should note that the necessary HDMI cable for connecting Portal to your TV is not included in the box, so you will need to purchase one separately. Fortunately, the three AAA batteries required by the remote are supplied.
Another oddity: there is a USB port on the back of the device that is not used for power (Portal TV uses a DC jack and comes with a standard UK three-pin plug), and is not mentioned in any of the documentation. We have no idea why it is there.
Once set up we found Portal TV intuitive in use. As long as it's on standby you will be notified of incoming video calls on both your phone and the TV, and can answer on either, but once you've answered on your phone we couldn't find a way to move the conversation over to the TV.
In-call you press the up button on the remote to access options such as end call or apply Story Time AR effects, though we weren't sure how to hang up on individual callers during group calls, especially when we had attempted to add them and they hadn't answered the call.
In theory Portal TV is a great idea, but there is still a lot of fear around over the social network's attitudes toward privacy. You should know that all video calls made over Portal TV are encrypted, that there is a sliding cover for physically preventing the camera from recording you, and that you can press a button to turn off the camera and mic when it's not in use. But even with these precautions we have concerns, and not least because if you don't actively turn off the camera and mic the Portal TV remains in standby mode, always listening for your next command or incoming call.
Should you receive a video call whoever happens to be watching the TV at the time can answer it, unless you've thought ahead and set up a screen lock, which you aren't prompted to do during setup. In our testing it seemed that to make any change we had to log into Facebook on a separate mobile device and input a code shown onscreen, yet by default there is nothing in place to stop someone logging into your Portal account, changing device-wide settings, calling your contacts, and even deleting your account.
One of Portal TV's other tricks is Superframe, which turns the TV into a giant digital photo frame when Portal TV enters standby mode. By default it is not connected to the photos associated with your Facebook account, but if you have granted it access to any of your folders - timeline pictures, albums, photos of you, mobile uploads and so forth - without realising what this might mean, you may want to ensure there's nothing dodgy in there before walking away and letting your kids get a nasty surprise.
Portal TV: Conclusion
If you make a lot of video calls then Portal TV makes it much more convenient to do so over a larger screen. We also appreciate the Alexa integration, in essence turning your TV into a giant smart display, and it's even more useful now that the device also supports Amazon Prime Video.
But there are privacy concerns, and the app library is otherwise barren - its highlight an original content platform with few big-name shows, and an augmented reality app that you might use to read your kids bedtime stories from afar but will more likely brush off as a gimmick.
We'd also like to see the Portal voice assistant available in other languages beside US English. In a future edition a higher-resolution camera will be a welcome upgrade.
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